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Amazing Student: Jonga Lee

  • Hometown: Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
  • Degree objective and graduation date: Ph.D. in educational theory and practice (teacher education and middle grades education), 2024; Certificate in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies, 2024
  • Degree(s) and graduation date: M.A. in education (curriculum and instruction), Seoul National University, 2017; B.A. in education and classical Chinese, SungKyunKwan University, 2014
Headshot of Jonga Lee

Why did you choose to attend UGA for your advanced degree objective?

I chose to attend the University of Georgia to pursue my Ph.D. in educational theory and practice because UGA is well-known for its academic excellence and critical, qualitative orientation to education. Additionally, it has a reputation for cultivating future teachers through its successful teacher education program, so I can learn richly about teacher education from prominent faculty dedicated to improving education in various ways.

I majored in curriculum studies for my master’s degree in South Korea, and here at UGA, I have been delving deeper into the intersection of theory and practice. This includes multicultural and critical teacher education, curriculum development, community engagement, and social justice-oriented education. It has been a wonderful and insightful experience.

What inspires your passion for K-12 education?

What inspires my passion for K-12 education is my deep-rooted concerns and interests regarding the education system, both in Korea and the United States. I am driven by a desire to address dehumanizing trends and the challenges faced by students. In Korea, despite its global reputation for high academic performance, issues such as standardized testing and intense competition have been pervasive. These factors often contribute to mental health problems and low self-esteem among students.

However, I have come to realize that these challenges are not unique to Korea, but are prevalent worldwide, including in the U.S. They stem from capitalist ideas embedded in society, which permeate into the education system, fostering excessive competition and prioritizing academic achievement over holistic student well-being. My passion lies in advocating for a more humanizing approach, as well as promoting cultural diversity and equity within the education system. Through my work, I strive to create an inclusive educational environment that nurtures the well-being of every student.

Why do you believe education can effect meaningful change, both locally and globally?

I truly believe education can bring about positive change, both locally and globally, as it involves proactive work that challenges our taken-for-granted norms and assumptions, which can harm our students. I am particularly passionate about discourse analysis as a research methodology. I believe in the power of language, as how we frame and talk about things can influence people’s beliefs, perspectives, and behaviors. In education, valuing students from different cultural backgrounds and appreciating their strengths can make a huge difference.

As someone in teacher education, educating future teachers is incredibly meaningful. These future teachers learn frameworks, concepts, and practices to better support our future generations. They can make an impact in their own classrooms by influencing students’ ways of thinking and behaving, which in turn shapes the future of their communities and countries.

Additionally, in today’s globally interconnected world, cultures influence each other. By exploring other cultures through education, we can consider similarities and differences and learn from one another. For example, globalization poses common issues like cultural homogenization and standardized testing trends. These are issues shared globally, and through education, we can become more aware of them and be ready to challenge or resist these harmful forces.

I eagerly anticipate the efforts of educators who will exert a positive influence in shaping a better society, both locally and globally.

In addition to your responsibilities as a graduate teaching assistant, you also serve as a mentor to marginalized scholars. What academic or service-oriented organizations are you involved in?

In addition to my responsibilities as a graduate teaching assistant, I am involved in the Korean-American Educational Researchers Association (KAERA), an organization for Korean American scholars living in the U.S. I have served as a student representative on the mentoring committee for three years, leading writing groups with graduate students and facilitating workshops for Korean or Korean American scholars. These activities involve providing mentorship, sharing resources, and creating networking opportunities to support this group of people whose voices are relatively less heard in U.S. society. Together with members, we have effectively navigated through the struggles and discriminatory experiences that Korean American scholars face, creating a safe and supportive space for individuals. It has been very rewarding to support people, and I have learned a lot from their insights and experiences.

Although not affiliated with formal organizations, I have also mentored students of color in their research and academic challenges, providing coaching and mentorship. One student I mentored co-authored a collaborative conference presentation, while another successfully completed an elementary teacher certification program despite facing personal challenges. Supporting these historically marginalized groups of people and learning and growing with them has been incredibly rewarding, as I believe it contributes to creating a more equitable and just society in general.

How does being an international student factor into your experience as a graduate student, and how does this impact your research as a scholar?

To be honest, being an international student in a doctoral degree program in the U.S. has been both fascinating and tough. As an international student and scholar, communicating with people from diverse cultures has been enriching and insightful. Throughout my journey as a graduate student, I have received immense support from the people around me—my professors, friends, and colleagues. I am truly grateful for their support and the opportunities to learn from the critical traditions in education at the University of Georgia. My learning in the doctoral program has opened my eyes in many different ways, allowing me to expand my horizons and understand education and society better.

However, I cannot say there were no challenges, such as the language barrier, cultural differences, and lack of a support system, affecting my experiences here. Nonetheless, these challenges have also turned into opportunities for me to deeply reflect on what it means and feels like to be marginalized in society. This has helped me better understand other groups of people who need support.

My cross-cultural experiences as a scholar have been invaluable in providing comprehensive and critical insights into education. My experiences in both Korea and the U.S. have greatly contributed to building a deep understanding, knowledge, and skills to delve into multiculturalism and global perspectives. Conducting comparative studies based on my interests and passions has been incredibly enriching, opening limitless possibilities. I have come to better understand that educational systems and practices are socially, historically, culturally, and politically constructed, and that different countries and cultures are closely connected. Additionally, teaching the general education core curriculum course, ETAP 2200: Education around the World, for four years has further intertwined my teaching and research, offering valuable insights and learning experiences.

What are your plans after you receive your degree objective in 2024?

After graduation, I plan to pursue my career as a professor in teacher education and curriculum studies. I want to continue my passion for working with both pre-service and in-service teachers, improving curricula to benefit diverse learners, and promoting humanizing educational practices. Leveraging my invaluable experiences from UGA and drawing from my Korean background, I would like to promote the value of community connectedness, relationships, and mutual support. I believe fostering such connections will contribute to enhancing and resolving some of the world’s problems in more positive ways. I also aim to provide mentorship to college students, particularly underrepresented groups of students, helping them navigate their careers and identities. Finally, I will enjoy traveling, taking photos, playing music, and writing on my blogs, as well as spending time with my loved ones. I am looking forward to the new adventures that will come.

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